Football and baseball are America’s two Homeric sports (one about the clash of armies with heroic leaders who perform feats of daring, the other about individual men journeying out to islands, encountering others, and struggling to return home). But, let’s face it, football is better on television than baseball is. The ball moves one direction at a time, generally speaking. There’s lots of hitting. There are lots of breaks where *really* nothing is happening, so you can cut away to a commercial (you can’t cut to a commercial break while the pitcher winds up, because he might throw any second). Because we had a TV when I was a kid, and because I grew up hundreds of miles from even minor league baseball, I have a birth-allegiance to football.
BUT. I have come to realize over the last decade that my affection for football cannot be without reservations. It’s fairly obvious by now that the men of the NFL who perform for our benefit every Sunday in the fall are very likely killing themselves slowly. It’s not as gory and immediate as Roman gladiatorial combat, and it’s not as bad as it was in the early days when Teddy Roosevelt intervened because so many players were dying on the field, but it’s still deadly in the end. That was brought home to me again when I saw the recent New York Times report on a researcher who had scanned the brains of 111 retirees.
110 of those brains had CTE, which is an enormous number when you consider what that means for the NFL as a whole (emphasis mine):
The set of players posthumously tested by Dr. McKee is far from a random sample of N.F.L. retirees. “There’s a tremendous selection bias,” she has cautioned, noting that many families have donated brains specifically because the former player showed symptoms of C.T.E.
But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players would have tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.
And despite the awful circumstances, we keep watching. I keep watching.
I think a GQ profile of a very young player who had CTE and committed suicide sums up my (ambiguous) feelings on the subject.
We could ban football. (But we love football.) We could allow people to play football only once they turn 18, which is what Omalu has proposed. (And what happens when 18-year-old athletic phenoms—freight trains who have never learned to tackle properly—are suddenly turned loose on one another? Is that better?) We could take away tackling. (Sorry, no one’s watching the National Flag Football League.) We could build a safer helmet. (Which will only encourage players to use their heads as weapons.) We could have a consistent concussion protocol through all levels of football. (We already do in the NFL. Ask Cam Newton how well it’s working.)
The GQ article raises another really good issue: we can say that NFL players are grown men who have chosen their profession with its associated risks, but the kids who play football aren’t in the same position. And you can’t make it to the NFL unless you start early. Sometimes someone will propose technology as a solution, but “technology” really means “money”, and LOTS of it.
And so I don’t quite know what to do. The World Cup is coming up…maybe I’ll just take up Association Football fandom instead.